The River Cafe- a brush with fame

There’s a brush with fame element involved in a visit to The River Cafe.

It’s there in the notorious chocolate nemesis (the downfall of many an aspirational home cook). It’s there in the block coloured books that line the entrance hall. It’s there in the spirit of the Jamie‘s, Hugh‘s, and Tobie‘s who payed their dues in the open kitchen and helped feed the wood burning fire that squats at the back of the kingfisher blue dining room.

Despite the fact that The River Cafe lives only 100 metres away from the flat where we crashed when we first arrived in London,  it’s taken us this long to visit this ode to elegant sufficiency.

The restaurant looks over a plush lawn, where children with a good degree of self confidence are cavorting about. Beyond that is the Thames. It’s low tide when we arrive, but there’s a coxed eight out rehearsing racing starts on the water.

We’re here to celebrate. It’s the continuing festival of our four year wedding anniversary. We must be getting old. These days unless it’s somewhere extreme we’re less about pyrotechnics on a plate and more about stonking great produce. As I look at the food being delivered to neighboring tables, my first thought is; ‘my Mum would really like it here’.

But possibly not the prices.

Luckily The Hungry One has been doing a series of presentations for one of his clients lately and as a thank you they’ve put down their credit card.

Who says there’s no such thing as a free lunch these days?

The famed philosophy of Ruth Rogers and the late Rose Gray revolves about exquisite, seasonal Italian food. The menu changes, sometimes twice a day depending on what’s at it’s peak. Written in careful Italian italics it’s cleaved into antipasti, pastas and risottos, mains, cheeses, ice creams and dessert.

It all starts with griddled bread, rustic with char, drizzled with peppery olive oil. It’s a great indicator of what’s to follow. Simple and beautiful. Why add another element or another flavour when just three suffice?

After four years of marriage we’ve learned to share. So from there it’s a trio of antipasti between us. First up; a tangle of langoustines, grilled in the wood oven with their bellies glossed with a green herb slurry. It’s sweet but unwieldy. It comes with the same sort of tools on the side that a dentist might find handy. A trick for young players, if you don’t pay attention and pluck the meat out of the bellies quickly it can swiftly  morph from tender and sweet to papery slush.

Next: fritto misti. It was advertised as a mixture of lightly battered sardines, lemon, sage leaves, artichokes and scallops; forrest and sea joined in a plate.  The wafer thin slices of lemon are a revelation; the best motivational tactic I’ve seen for purchasing a mandolin for home. The sage leaves are more texture than flavour. As for the scallops? Well, we were a little light on the scallops. One scallop, twelve sardines. I might have preferred a more even handed approach. The Hungry One is very good at many things. But checking to see if there were more than one scallop before scoffing?  Not so much.

The last antipasti is an excitement of rustic flavours and textures- a craggy mound of buffalo mozzarella, a burlap pile of chickpea puree and softly wilted greens. Uniting them all is a light note of sweetness and the same peppery kick of the olive oil.

Next; pasta.  First it’s a ravioli of gentle threads of Cornish crab, combined with fennel seed, parsley, chilli and lemon. It’s trillingly light with just the right amount of heat; not enough to zing you, but just enough to make it sparkle.

Then, the ricotta gnocchi; a dish that calls to be shared. Naked marbles of curds and egg, dusted in semolina are gently cooked then draped with with wafts of speck. It’s deceptively rich stuff. Even for The Hungry One.

We choose to share one single main course. Not just because we’re full. Because even though we’re not paying, I find paying £35 for a portion of rib eye a little tricky to swallow. It arrives as a beautiful triad; three hearty pieces of meat, charred with flesh, dribbled with salsa verde and Roman fried artichokes. Compared to the heavy handed approach of a few well loved steak spots in London it was pleasantly underseasoned. Much easier to add your own salt at the table to taste, than labour to scrape it off.

For desserts we moved outside to take advantage of the weather (and to avoid the three year old who was kicking the back of my chair). Yes, there are plenty of kids here at The River Cafe tucking into £20 bowls of pasta.

It turns out that the chocolate nemesis is all that it’s cracked up to be. Shouldering the burden of 10 eggs proudly, it’s more mousse than cake, a fine balance of lightness and heft. It didn’t last long.

The lemon, ricotta and pine nut cake lingered a little longer.  It’s heavy on the eggs as well, with a texture that limped a little close to a frittata for my liking.

But if you ever need to feel special then go straight to the house made ice creams. Roasted almond comes groaning with toasted nuts- and if you’ve got something to celebrate you may just end up with delightfully twee candles and a message in chocolate.

It goes without saying that The River Cafe is a special place. Yes, if you’re after great produce, handled beautifully you can eat like that at plenty of other spots across London now; from Zucca to The Dock Kitchen, to 10 Greek Street and Duck Soup. All of them at much lower prices. But there’s something to be said about going to the source (especially if you’re not footing the bill).

There’s a brush with fame that comes with visiting the original- from the room, to the food right through to the way you’re treated by the staff with their informed but unfussy approach.

And then there’s the simple matter that during a visit you might also get a glimpse a of a pretty well known blonde calling her children in from where they were playing on the grass for their lunch. 

Now that’s what I call a brush with fame.

The River Cafe
Thames Wharf, Rainville Road,
Hammersmith W6 9HA

020 7386 4200
  1. I'm obsessed with the River Cafe cookbooks: the simple recipes, focus on flavor, and the photography of David Loftus. It's so interesting to read your review, as I've never been to England and this restaurant holds such iconic status in my mind. I love your oh so real perspective on the experience, and celebrity sitings are always fun!

  2. That ravioli looks splendid. Paper thin, glossy, heaven. I love Hugh. It's so cool you guys got to go.

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